In the aftermath of the Westgate Mall attacks, a delicate interplay between sensitive forensic information, human rights, human stories and the perilous nature of emergency responses hangs in the balance. As more devastating details unravel, Kenyans reflect on what happened that day and on their fear, bravery and fragile hope. By KATE STEGEMAN.
By now, startling, often tragic and at times gruesome images of the events surrounding the Westgate mall terror attack have filled countless newspapers and social media platforms.
In-depth analysis as well as narrative accounts of armed gunmen, scores of victims, frightened people, the strategic use of politicised violence, hostage taking, and camo-clad soldiers have been carried across the world’s media.
There are also more tempered glimpses of less overt hostility – video footage of billowing smoke, scenes of blood-tinged feathers from pillows carried by customers trapped in department stores, abandoned pushchairs and multi-level escalators, of hands in the air.
The Al-Shabaab attack saw the violation of basic human rights as well as instilling fear and a security crisis in Kenya.
As the crisis entered its 12th day, and in the wake of mounting allegations of government bungling, obfuscation and security failures, official state reports conflict with those supplied by the Kenyan Red Cross.
Kenyan political activist, Robert Alai, told the Daily Maverick this week that there are conflicting reports and confusion surrounding the number of people affected by the massacre.
“We still don’t know what to believe about the death toll. The numbers range from 61 to 67 or 69. Bodies are still unaccounted for. Some have been found in hospitals and morgues, but what about other places?” asks Alai.
“Their relatives need answers. Earlier this week official figures of missing people went down to 39, but as government has not been clear, there is still mistrust of numbers, so this may not be accurate”.
The Kenyan government is accused of evading questions about intelligence failings but Interior Minister, Joseph Ole Lenku, has consistently maintained the information is confidential and cannot be released to the public. Earlier this week Lenku went on the record saying that Kenyan police did not have any outstanding missing persons reports, which prompted the anger of many Kenyans.
Amid the unanswered questions and unaccounted bodies, there are also numerous stories of courage and resourcefulness – of Kenyan’s who pushed back against the violence and misleading information plaguing their society.
Robert Mburu is one of those people. He managed to break down barriers, both literal and figurative, in a desperate attempt to secure the safety of his sister, Dorcas Mwangi, trapped inside the mall.
During a telephonic conversation with the Daily Maverick this week, Mburu shared a highly detailed account of his involvement in the siege.
For Mburu, it all started with a confused phone call. At approximately 13:30 on Saturday, 21 September, while inside a bank 130 kilometers away from Nairobi, he heard that his sister had, minutes earlier, made a frantic call, pierced “with screaming and gun shots”, to their mother. She was at Westgate mall.
“I soon realised it was an emergency. I was in a state of panic, I was feeling so helpless and worried about my sister but I still drove my car to the mall as fast as I could,” says Mburu.
“I started getting information from friends [on WhatsApp] that it was a hostage situation… that gunmen were in Westgate, the whole mall was being held up and it someone confirmed… Al-Shabaab were involved”.
En route, Mburu sent a series of SMSes to his sister asking her: “Where are you… are you safe?” It took her nearly half an hour for her to reply that she was. “I texted her back to say ‘Don’t jeopardise your safety, don’t expose yourself… only text me when can’, ” says Mburu.
Once at the mall he ran to the police perimeter at one of the main entrances. “Even though the barricade was 200m away you could still hear gun shots. Ambulances were rushing in. I found my dad and mum and told them she had texted that she was hiding somewhere in Nakumat market,” says Mburu.
He described the scene as one of “chaos” with police, Kenya Red Cross officials and ambulances everywhere, people “pushing, shoving and screaming”. Mburu however, remained calm and thought to find his friend, “close to the presidential security”, who was outside the main mall. Mburu asked his friend to help get him past the police barrier. Soon after, he saw the arrival of “armed vehicles with soldiers carrying big guns”.
Meanwhile, his sister’s text messages revealed she was hiding behind some suitcases. She wasn’t alone. “Dorcas was in the pharmacy when she heard the gunshots. She tried to run outside but gunmen were on the parking deck so she was forced to run back in. Bullets were being fired helter-skelter… there was screaming, trampling like a stampede, bodies everywhere,” says Mburu.
Everyone in the mall, it didn’t matter if they woke up that morning in an affluent area or ‘the other side’, were huddled together. Dorcas let the woman next to her, a cleaner from Kibera [an informal settlement], use her phone to also SMS and stay in touch with her own family”.
By then Mburu had got through the police perimeter and had managed to tell his security expert friend exactly where his sister was. “I told him you have to talk to your connections, the rescue team and army commander and tell him Dorcas says people are getting out through the ceiling,” Mburu says.
The Daily Maverick asked if Mburu had learned of any details, via his sister’s SMSes or his security specialist friend, related to what the attackers were allegedly doing at the time.
“Yes. The terrorists [seemed to be] playing mind games… one gunman would randomly release rounds at a crowd of people so that they’d run in one direction. Then another guy would shoot them from the other side. People got sandwiched in between. It was well choreographed.”
The nature of the attack also ties into evidence-based suggestions that the killings were political, highly strategic and well planned. According to reports by The Guardian and BBC Africa al-Shabaab hired a shop in the Mall some weeks before the attack took place.
Mburu goes on to explain that by this time the Kenyan army was sweeping through stores, level by level, and when the commander gave the clear, heavily armed soldiers escorted people out.
He sent another text to Mwangi warning: “Don’t try [to] be a hero and run out, be patient. Only come when you are sure that the men with guns are police officer, legit guys in uniform. Only then choose to move with them.”
The Kenyan military has been accused of mishandling the siege itself including firing rocket-propelled and anti-tank grenades that may have led to the collapse of three stories in the large Westgate complex. The military has also been accused of widespread looting of shops in the mall in the days after the attack but, of course, not all of the tactical response team can be tarred with the brush of thievery. It’s estimated that five Kenyan soldiers and police also lost their lives in the line of duty that day.
Dorcas Mwangi made it out of the mall alive. After approximately four hours of being trapped, she was finally reunited with her brother. “It was a huge relief. I held her hand and walked her to the other side of the perimeter where my parents were waiting,” says Mburu.
But Robert Mburu’s ordeal did not end with his sister’s release. While outside he learned that two close personal friends were also trapped in the mall. Mbugua Mwangi (not relation to Dorcas), President Kenyatta’s nephew and his fiancé, Rosemary Wahito, were also shopping when the attack began.
“At about ten o’clock I went to check the city morgues. It’s almost unexplainable; there were piles of bodies everywhere… like a scene out of some a genocide movie. I found them there. Together. When I looked at the bodies it seemed as [if] Mbugua had been shot about seven times. Rosemary had been shot in her head… I think he was maybe trying to protect her,” says Mburu.
The Daily Maverick asked activist, Robert Alai, whether people believed there might be more attacks.
“People are scared to leave their homes. There is less traffic and a somber mood here. We don’t know if and where they will strike again. It’s not only about the emergency response but nobody in government is giving people the right information… to prevent this happening again,” says Alai.
“Everyone is scared… we [are] all looking over our shoulders. There was clearly a lapse in security. This should not have happened… that hostages were still inside three days later. We have to ask what happened to those people? Also, who have [government’s security forces] actually saved?” asks Mburu.
“From what I understand, government is contradicting itself. [Minister of the interior] Lenku is not the right man for the job. He can’t articulate what’s going on. From what I have been able to find out, not a single terrorist who was at [the] mall has been apprehended alive,” says Mburu.
“Arrests have been made at the airport, but that’s only the suspects. Government says they have killed some attackers. But have the bodies even been recovered? There are rumours that the gunmen are hiding in the slums, on the outskirts… also that terrorists dressed up as victims, acted like innocent people and just walked out.”
Alai raises similar concerns. “The media has reported that the attackers escaped through a tunnel… we want to know why they haven’t been caught. It’s worrying that they have not been captured. The attackers may be hiding anywhere.”
The Daily Maverick asked Mburu: if the attackers were apprehended, would he rather see them tried in Kenya or at the International Criminal Court (ICC)?
“I think for a lot of Kenyans it would be helpful, emotionally, even if only one of the gunmen involved, responsible for the carnage was arraigned in court in Kenya. Now we don’t even have a single picture or confirmed evidence of who to put the blame on.”
Robert Alai has consistently sounded the alarm about government’s attempts to conceal the truth about what happened in Westgate.
“Forensic investigators need to collect intelligence and take photos… but the problem is that government are treating activists like enemies. People are scared to try and get information,” he says.
“We can’t have the military cover up information, on looting, but also what they did wrong when they responded to the attack. We want to see the [raw] CCTV footage.”
On a hesitantly positive note, the Kenyan newspaper, The Daily Nation, reported on Tuesday that President Kenyatta had appointed a Commission of Inquiry to access the security lapses related to the attack.
Do Robert Mburu and Robert Alai have any positive reflections to share?
Mburu says, “Yes, while we were waiting for my sister to get out and trying to get information, many people came together. In a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic show of solidarity, businesses and restaurants gave food to the survivors. I met an Indian family and when Dorcas got out they gave her water.”
Alai cautions, “Positivity is important but it should not be used to censor anything from the attack, who is to blame.”
Mburu says, “We are Kenyan, we are in this together. From the slums to affluent areas, Kenyans are [usually] very divided but I haven’t seen that now. We are all our brothers and sisters’ keepers, we need to be vigilant but also recognise the outpouring of support.”
“We are united, yes. We have acted as one to donate blood, and support locals but also not only Kenyans, every continent’s lost people,” adds Alai.
Blood drives by The Red Cross has seen ex-pats, Somalis, Kenyans (some with torn shoes, others driving BMWs) all ready to donate.
At the time of writing The Daily Maverick was unable to establish the whereabouts of the woman from Kibera [Nairobi informal township] who had been hiding with Dorcas.
Mburu says his sister is desperately trying to reach her on the number she used to SMS her family while they were inside the mall.
For many Kenyans, hope lies in the idea that justice will be done and that basic humanity and courage will outweigh the death, violence and fear.
As the crisis still unfolds, many more stories like that of Robert Mburu will undoubtedly be told. Courage and hope are what Kenyans say they need to walk the Westgate tightrope. DM
All photos by James Quest (Www.mavulture.com)
Kate Stegeman is a South African freelance multi-media journalist. She has a Masters in Violence, Conflict and Development from the University of London (SOAS), which included a course in ‘Terrorism and the Rule of Law’ at the London School of Economics.
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